[Sub Pop; 2011]

Fusing upbeat alt-country with pleasantly melodic echoes of sylvan zaniness, experimental rockers Blitzen Trapper fire off American Goldwing. The eclectic Portland, Oregon based quintet’s 6th studio album is a return to form following last year’s Destroyer of the Void, which, despite showcasing Blitzen Trapper’s refined instrumental chops, came off as flat, derivative, and fatally overproduced.

Atop drummer Brian Koch’s rhythmic avalanche and a fuzzy slide guitar on “Might Find It Cheap,” singer-songwriter Eric Earley joyously exposes that fallacy of the complementary lunch: “Oh ‘ya might find it cheap / But you’re never goanna find it ‘fer free!” Mirroring the morbid fatalism of Dylan’s Basement Tapes, “Fletcher” has Blitzen Trapper vying to keep an inebriated curmudgeon from stumbling into the driver’s seat. Unsettling mandolin lines back Earley’s sonorous voice, as the singer traces the turbulent life that led Ol’ Fletcher to the precipice of vehicular homicide.
Set to a spunky banjo and steel pedal guitar, “Love The Way You Walk Away” tells of a relationship lost to cool disregard and a perverse fetish for the unattainable. Riffs shoot out from behind Earley’s vocals, as he reveals a paradoxical and damning wisdom: “The old joke stands ‘cause its true I guess / That when you get what you’re lookin’ for ‘ya want it less.” With a bluesy harmonica, emphatic hillbilly stomping, and Michael VanPelt’s throbbing bass, “Your Crying Eyes” channels the rambunctious nonchalance of Blitzen Trapper’s exuberant Wild Mountain Nation.

Drenched in golden harmonies, “My Home Town” plays as a kitschy-yet-bonhomie tribute to a place where class distinction melts away in the face of naturalistic beauty: “I seen the workers and I seen the bums / They all shine equal in the setting sun.” Deconstructed acoustic finger picking and a gently clinking tambourine set the stage for country waltz “Girl In a Coat,” which features the elegantly swirling piano of versatile multi-instrumentalist Marty Marquis.

Title track “American Goldwing,” a phantasmagoria of transient fragments set to a hootenanny harmonica, channels Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues in yearning for a respite from the perpetual grind of everyday living. With an exultant delivery, Earley recounts his exodus from the death grip of modern society: “We ride these waters dark and dusty / ‘Cause the city ain’t no place to hide.” Expanding on this impulse to escape from a stifling urban landscape, “Astronaut” has Blitzen Trapper searching for a taste of anonymity. At first the quest is fruitless, as Earley fails to escape familiar foes: “He knows my face from a previously place / From a country in a foreign land.” With no choice but to launch himself into the ether, the singer, amidst funky guitar hooks, finally discovers sanctuary “In a land without no grav-ah-tee / In this windless place / On the edge of space.”

Following “Taking It Easy Too Long,” which chronicles a restless rut following one of those particularly rough breakups, bellicose number “Street Fighting Sun” cranks up the energy with pulverizing electric guitars, cacophonous percussion, and visceral bursts of falsetto. The track’s robust instrumental section drowns out scarcely comprehendible lyrics, as the Portland quintet hammers out a menacing, combative aura.

Across its eleven remarkably fluid cuts, American Goldwing champions “that sprit that beckons you to saddle up,” and “head for someplace better where love is true.” But in wrapping up the album with “Stranger In a Strange Land,” the band confesses that life as a drifting brawler comes at a price. Burnt out and exhausted from their pilgrimage across dusty rivers and the farthest reaches of outer space, Blitzen Trapper decries that even the freedom of the open road has its limits: “I’m tired of this highway / It runs far but never my way.”

Yet in many ways this is an album that, taken as a whole, amounts to less than the sum of its parts. It’s almost as though Blitzen Trapper wrote a stupendously catchy lead guitar melody a half decade ago for Wild Mountain Nation and have been using it on every other upbeat number since. If you’re expecting another breakthrough LP from these Portland trailblazers, American Goldwing may come as a disappointment. But for a band that’s already accomplished so much, it’s hard to fault them for taking a step back to showcase their smooth, fluid songwriting; sardonic wit; and savvy instrumental prowess.